BELGRADE — In mid-April, along the so-called Balkan route favored by hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants with dreams of Europe, authorities collected the mangled body of a young man along train tracks near Serbia’s border with Croatia.
Activists there say such victims frequently go unidentified beyond their “physical appearance and skin color” that leads authorities to conclude they are refugees. Despite prescribed procedures, they say, in those instances there is no autopsy and no DNA sampling to help establish their identities.
However, this victim’s name was known.
He was Shoib Tasal, a 21-year-old who fled war-torn Afghanistan to Turkey more than a year ago, after finishing 12th grade, before traveling to Serbia in the months before his death.
Since Tasal was struck by a train in northwestern Serbia, there have been more questions than answers about his death. But unlike those of thousands of fellow migrants who’ve perished in abandoned trailers, choppy seas, or fast-moving river currents, Tasal’s body has been returned to his parents for burial in his homeland, thanks to alerts by activists and a crowdfunding campaign organized by a family member in the Netherlands.
“Shoib was a young boy with hopes and dreams, just like any of us,” the relative, Faridullah Khorshid, said in his GoFundMe appeal. “He deserved a chance at a better life, and his parents deserve the chance to say goodbye properly.”
This is the cruel reality of life on the move and of life at the European borders, where people are violently and illegally push backed.
No Name Kitchen
Weeks later, after $5,000 was raised to transport the body to Afghanistan with any remaining money to be sent to Tasal’s parents, Khorshid thanked the 100-plus contributors.
His death — and the deaths of so many others like him — is a tragic facet of a decade-long battle between asylum seekers and refugees like Tasal and populist, anti-immigrant governments in stepping-stone states like Serbia, on the border of the more affluent European Union.
“This is the cruel reality of life on the move and of life at the European borders, where people are violently and illegally push backed,” said No Name Kitchen, an NGO that promotes humanitarian aid and political action along the Balkan and Mediterranean migrant routes to Europe.
Since its peak in 2015, the continent’s migration crisis has pitched and lurched but stubbornly persisted, upending or, in thousands of cases, tragically ending lives.
The latest official figures, from October 2021, suggested nearly 70 refugees and migrants had died in Serbia since the wave of undocumented immigration to Europe began amid war and humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and North Africa.
Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration declined to respond to a query by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service seeking a precise and more current figure.
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The most common causes of confirmed deaths have been traffic or railway accidents or drownings in any of the three fast-flowing rivers along the Serbian border.
Asylum lawyer and activist Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Asylum Protection Center in Serbia, says the number of dead is likely higher because some bodies are never found.
“We think a certain number of people who have died are not even known about,” Djurovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “They are reported as missing, or friends and relatives from [their] country of origin, or from some European countries where they went, ask about them, [although] it’s never established what happened [to them].”
Most of those who have died in Serbia have been buried in local cemeteries near the country’s half-dozen or so refugee centers.
Irina Fehr, a volunteer for No Name Kitchen, told RFE/RL that her group heard news of Tasal’s death through others in the migrant-welfare movement and that they were later contacted by Tasal’s parents.
In a thread on Twitter, they shared news of the tragedy and encouraged the public to donate to Khorshid’s GoFundMe.
“There are different stories about what events led to his death, and we don’t know what actually happened,” Fehr said. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration responded to RFE/RL’s request for more information about Tasal’s death.
Fehr said her group was not in direct contact with the police but that police must have been informed of the case.
Djurovic agreed, adding that police would have to conduct an investigation into a death involving someone being hit by a train.
Milica Svabic from the Klikaktiv Center for the Development of Social Policies, an NGO, says there are official steps assigned that are often skipped in the cases of migrant deaths.
“The official procedure says that when the body is found, it should be transferred to the morgue of the nearest hospital, where an autopsy will be performed and, if the person does not have identification documents with them, DNA material will be taken for possible later analysis and comparison.”
The body is assigned an identification number before burial.
“But in the summer of 2020 we received unofficial information by phone that very often when they see that it’s a migrant, that is, a refugee — and they determine this only on the basis of physical appearance and skin color — that they don’t send the body for an autopsy at all, they don’t take DNA material, and the body is sent directly to the cemetery for burial,” Svabic said.
WATCH: Serbian police have been rounding up people traveling toward the European Union and taking them to government-run camps around the country.
The International Organization for Migration (IMO) estimates that more than 55,000 migrants have died en route to international destinations around the world since 2014, nearly half of them in the Mediterranean region.
In the absence of official data, activists have created what they call a “4D database” of migrant deaths in the region that lists grim fates such as drownings, car crashes, train strikes, and sometimes gun or other violence.
It lists at least 80 deaths in Serbia prior to January 2022, the latest update available.
Asylum activist Djurovic argues that officials’ “frequent pushbacks and violence” to try to turn away unregistered migrants and asylum seekers just encourages people to “take more and more risks in the hope that they’ll succeed at some point in crossing the border of Serbia and continuing on their way to the European Union.”
That, he says, prompts even greater risk-taking through more dangerous ways to cross the border — and more tragedies like that of Tasal.
In an update to the GoFundMe effort for Tasal’s repatriation, the family member in the Netherlands announced that “Unfortunately, we…have some regrettable news to share. The family had to borrow funds to cover the transportation costs because GoFundMe has not yet released money from the crowdfunding campaign.”
He added: “We understand that this has added to the family’s stress, and we are working hard to ensure that the funds are released as soon as possible.”
Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Iva Gajic